No Dogs, No Indians, written by Siddharta Bose, is an ambitious trio of tales that dares to stare the legacy of British imperialism in the face. It centres around the idea that colonialisation invades not only land but also people’s concept of themselves and how they relate to their own past. It is a story of identity crisis, a battle for meaning and an aching question that needs to be answered:  what to remember and what to forget.  Staged at The Spire, an old church in the outskirts of Brighton, No Dogs, No Indians presents thought-provoking subjects, however, in its production and performance it struggles to bring the significance and impact that its conceptual grounding could have delivered to its audience. The ideas are inspired, but their execution is unfortunately lacking.

This struggle for a sense of self and belonging in our characters is somewhat represented in the play, which itself seems uneasy and unsure of what exactly it wants to be. No Dogs, No Indians confusingly bounces between three scenarios, all in different eras. We begin at a coked-up party in modern India following a young man (played by Omar Khan) who has returned from many years abroad. Following this, we transition back and forth between the tale of the real-life revolutionary Pritilata “Rani” Waddedar (Komal Amin) in the 1930s, and the domestic struggles of the British-obsessed Shymal Chatterjee (Omar Khan) in the 1970s. This is not an impossible task to execute, but these three pieces do not interlink outside of a rare moment directly before the interval. They are, in themselves, all intriguing concepts but with all three battling for depth, detail, and stage time, it feels more like one more focused tale was sacrificed to get as much content on the stage with little regard to impact and pacing.

The relatively small cast must constantly bounce back and forth between characters and eras with the assistance of the chorus (Archana Ramaswamy). Her bold performance is vital in holding together the rather loose threads that connect these stories. However, it does prove somewhat jarring to see the transitions from scene to scene come from her freezing and unfreezing the cast with clicks of her fingers and a quick lighting swoop. The production here is rather lacklustre, with distant and clunky sounding “knocking on a door” sound effects and other clichés that stain what is meant to be a daring and important piece with an unfortunate air of amateur dramatics. It is a two hour long play that transitions eleven times between eras and characters. However, the production and staging lacks the effort and creativity that is present, and evident, in the concept and writing of the show. There is a rather delicious irony to the setting of the premiere: a disused church in cosy suburban England for a play about Indian revolutionaries and the ghosts of the British Empire provided an excellent backdrop, it is just a shame that the production could not live up to the ideas of the piece.

However, if there is one theme that permeates every era and every scene, it is a sense of alienation. It is perhaps the heartbeat of the entire performance. This is most keenly felt during the 1970s setting based around Shymal Chatterjee, who is referred to as a “Brown Sahib”.  This is a term used to describe Indians who loathe India and idolise the idea of Britishness and the empire that came with it. He spends his time studying English literature and performs Shakespeare at local theatres. It is here where we are first introduced to him, venting his frustration at India and longing for a fabled idea of Britishness whilst preparing for a show. In a rather unsubtle manoeuvre, he is applying his stage makeup whilst this is done, effectively “whitefacing” both literally and symbolically. Whilst he laments his lack of belonging in his own nation, his long-suffering wife (played by Archana Ramaswamy) is constantly picking up the pieces around him as he dreams. He is entirely dependent upon his wife to take care of their child, fix his clothes and manage his rampant alcoholism. His wife, who stands as a representation of India, sustains him whilst he ignores and degrades her. The background of this is gratefully elaborated by the chorus. A brief history lesson ensues prior to most of Chatterjee’s scenes which denote the attempts of the British Empire to create a “new breed” of Indians that are, to quote Baron Macaulay, “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”.[1] This idea, made manifest in Chatterjee, is displayed as inherently unsustainable. The empire has done little for Chatterjee and it is only in his old age that he finally discovers India in his travels of his own country. Chatterjee’s tale is one of the strangest impacts of the British Empire. It is how it left its “children” behind in India. The ghosts of empire created foreigners in their own land, uncomfortable with their very existence.

In our second and most ambitious tale, we follow Pritilata “Rani” Waddedar. Rani is a forgotten real-life revolutionary, whose story explores the opposite struggle of identity: that of revolution and resistance, as well as gender inequality. “No dogs or Indians”, as we learn in this segment, was a sign hanging on the whites-only Pahartali European club signboard, which Rani attacked before dramatically killing herself in revolt.  Rani is so fiercely attempting to carve out something that she can call India that the tale becomes very light on the details of her life. She mainly speaks of her hatred for the Empire and her longing to be involved in more violent activity which she was denied due to being female. In this piece, the focus on gender politics of India and of revolution plays an intriguing, but not fully developed role.  Bose indeed has a deft touch in highlighting how nation and identity building movements all too often leave women behind to do the cooking whilst the men march off to battle. However, the excellence of idea again suffers from clumsiness of execution. We leap forward to parts of her life with very little explanation of context, we are introduced to a romantic subplot that is extinguished as immediately as it is introduced and are effectively told about her relationships and ideas by the chorus instead of being shown on stage. Rani’s life – a  dramatisation of the life of an unknown revolutionary has spectacular potential, however it becomes muddled when combined with quiet domestic tale of Shymal Chatterjee and the ending story of drug-fuelled parties in modern India.

There are some links between Chatterjee’s and Rani’s tales, such as their contrasting relationships with Shakespeare, but it is over as soon as it is introduced. We see Chatterjee worship the Bard whilst Rani burns his books before even glancing at them, rejecting the English language entirely as an element of colonial oppression. Furthermore, the narrative style of skipping between eras saps a great deal of energy and tension from her story, making it difficult to feel the full weight of her final few steps towards the club. The untold story of a real-life female revolutionary philosophy teacher who marched into a whites only club and opened fire sounds utterly enticing, but it simply fails to feel as epic and engrossing as it quite rightly should be.

Finally, there is a rather short plot that only appears to open and close the play. It follows Ananda (also played by Omar Khan), the son of Shymal Chatterjee. He is a young man who studies in the UK, who has returned to India for his father’s funeral. He finds himself mocked by his materialist friends who embrace their “modern” India (Ashraf Ejjbair, Archana Ramaswamy). They snort coke, smoke weed, and mock his British ways. Britain is old news; its factories are all owned by Indian corporations and those who still worship the idea of “Britishness” are laughable. Ananda struggles with his father’s legacy and that of modern India. How he has been defined by England and how his friends, who listen to drum n’ bass and talk about cars, have embraced Western materialism. He doesn’t know how to remember his Father and subsequently how to define India in a way independent from the ghosts of British colonialism. The many disparate strands of this play attempt to emphasise what we should remember, even if the British “we” would rather forget it, but doesn’t exactly offer any conclusions beyond raising questions. Perhaps this is all that is necessary, but it still feels slightly unsatisfying.

No Dogs, No Indians was a bold attempt to tackle interesting and relevant ideas. It comes at a very apt time, the year of UK-India cultural celebration and the 70th year of Indian independence. However, despite its lofty ambitions, the play consistently stumbles with its uneven pacing and awkward production. There was promise and wonder hidden underneath the surface of No Dogs, No Indians, it is a shame that, it in the end, it is brought down in the most ironic way: a play struggling for identity and solid ground.

[1] Bureau of Education. Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839).  Edited by H. Sharp.  Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117.